20111025

Are white people smarter than black people?

(I wrote this post one year ago. Please see About East Saint Louis for more information.)

Today Vivian, one of the educational advocates...one of the white educational advocates, told me about a conversation she had with one of our students:

Jamal is a 4th-grade student that excels in reading and language arts and struggles in math. He keeps mostly to himself and I've frequently made it a game to try to get him to smile. He has several other siblings that go to the after-school center and often gets lots in his family since he talks so little. Jamal was getting especially frustrated with his homework and kept telling Vivian how hard his homework was. Vivian continued to encourage him to keep trying and Jamal quietly asked her, "Are white people just smarter than black people?"

Obviously, Vivian answered with a resounding "of course not!" among other things. I'm saddened that I live in a world where child could even think of a question like that. But from his perspective, how could he not? Jamal lives in a community where the white people have the good jobs and come to "help" the black people. Where race and class are intimately intertwined. Where he can only dream of a post-racial world. Where his future is seemingly sealed by his circumstances.

We have so far to go.

20111024

You Know You Live in Colorado Springs When...

Maybe you have seen it. It is a green and white, 6 ft by 12 ft sign along Interstate 25 on the way to Colorado Springs. It is the same green and white as all the other official highway signs indicating upcoming rest stops or city centers, only this sign is letting you know that Focus on the Family is ahead. It reads simply, “Focus on the Family Welcome Center Next Exit.”


Focus on the Family is a non-profit religious organization headquartered in Colorado Springs. They claim to be an organization “dedicated to helping families thrive,” however, their political activism opposes abortion, gay rights, and comprehensive sex education. They also have have discriminatory hiring practices and will not consider hiring Catholic applicants as they are the “wrong flavor” of Christian. Whether or not you agree with the organization’s mission and purpose, however, is of no consequence. The majority of Colorado Springs residents actually support Focus on the Family’s mission. I personally oppose the majority of Focus on the Family’s core beliefs. But, even if my personal beliefs allied perfectly with this organization, I still do not think taxpayers should be funding this highway sign.

While Colorado Springs city taxpayers are struggling to keep street lights on because of budget shortfalls, taxpayers (myself included) are also paying to build and maintain this highway sign. “... the 81-acre campus in Colorado Springs is a bona fide tourist attraction, drawing up to 250,000 visitors a year.” Yes, the ministry is a popular tourist attraction in Colorado Springs, but does that mean that I should be bearing the cost of advertising that tourist attraction? With an annual operating budget of 120 Million, Focus on the Family can and should afford to pay for their own sign and not rely on state funds.

In my most recent drive to Colorado Springs, I kept my eye out for other highway signs similar to Focus on the Family’s sign and found none. I saw plenty of signs advertising other private tourist attractions, but these signs were different. They came in the form of billboards that were offset from the official highway signs. Even though there are countless tourist attractions in the Pike’s Peak region, the sign for Focus on the Family is the only one in the same style as the official signs. Not even the Flying W Ranch, another religious-based tourist attraction, had a publicly funded sign along the interstate.

You do not see highway signs for other churches or faith-based organizations, so what makes Focus on the Family different? In the state of Colorado, private organizations can apply for highway signs by proving that they are a tourist attraction. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), “Privately owned businesses wishing to participate must derive the major portion of their income from visitors not residing in the immediate area.” Focus on the Family certainly qualifies with its large number of out of state visitors per CDOT’s rules, but I think the rules should be changed. Not only are private religious organizations getting free advertising, they are also getting free assistance with the development of these advertisements. After an organization gets approval for a “Tourist Oriented Directional Sign” they then also have access to “creative assistance” in the form of “designing of the business logo” at no charge.

As an atheist, I am most bothered by the lack of separation of church and state with regards to this sign. The establishment clause of the US Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” By publicly funding advertisements for a private religious organization are we not “establishing” a religion by putting an official government voice behind a specific religious group? The sign is not the only blurred line between church and state. Even if their sign were not publicly funded, Focus on the Family also receives government perks through their tax-exempt status. Not only do I want my publicly funded highway signs to remain secular, I also want my publicly funded community colleges, universities, libraries, and post offices to remain secular too.

This sign has even been included on a “Top 100 - You know you live in Colorado Springs when...” list under “You’ve never thought twice about why Focus on the Family has its own highway sign.” Why does Focus on the Family have its own highway sign? Sometimes it is hard to notice the absurdity in the status quo but it is time to stop providing free advertising to private religious organizations.

20111017

Development and the Politics of Empowerment

(I wrote this post one year ago. Please see About East Saint Louis for more information.)

I just finished my first class through the International Institute of Sustainable Development called "Development and the Politics of Empowerment". Here's my final paper/reflections for it. The writing is pretty uninspired, but I'm impressed with myself that I got it done.

The prompt:
In order to complete the course, participants MUST produce a brief (1-2 page) reflection paper on the material presented. The paper will be broken into two parts, and can be very casual. The first will discuss how your development project already has a political focus/perspective and what perspective that is. The second part will focus on how and why politics should or should not be more greatly incorporated into your particular development project.

If you are not yet working in the field, please select a development organization and using their website and your knowledge of it, please discuss the organization's perception of development and how it may differ from other organizations. How is this organization implicitly taking a political stance? Additionally, include your views on development prior to this course and how they have changed, if at all.
The paper:

I am currently working for The Griffin Center in East Saint Louis, IL. The Griffin Center is a non-profit organization in East Saint Louis that provides after-school programming to youth to help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. I would consider this a “development organization” in that we are working to create better circumstances for future generations by focusing on the children of the community. Each of the three after-school centers that we run are located in different public housing developments throughout the city. We currently have about 400 children enrolled in our programs throughout the city.

The Griffin Center has partnerships with several organizations that each require political relationships to effectively work together.

  1. The Griffin Center and East Saint Louis Housing Authority: Each of our centers are located in the community center of the public housing offices. In exchange for providing free programming to the children of the residents of the public housing, The Griffin Center does not pay rent or utilities.
  2. The Griffin Center and
    1. Americorps
    2. AARP (American Association of Retired Peoples)
    3. SIUE (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville)
    4. PITW (Put Illinois to Work) Each of the organizations listed above provides subsidized workers to The Griffin Center. More than half of The Griffin Center’s staff comes from one of these organizations. However, along with the “free” workers come hassles as each organization has separate rules on attendance, time cards, dress code, etc.
  3. The Griffin Center and East Saint Louis School District 189: One of the reasons that The Griffin Center is so vital is because not only are the children coming from severely disadvantaged backgrounds, the children also belong to a failing school district. Out of the 20 schools in the district, 12 of them are not meeting the Adequate Yearly Progress
  4. The Griffin Center and other non-profits/aide organizations that provide services to the residents of the housing developments: The Griffin Center focuses on the children in the housing developments. So much of the success of a child depends on the success of the parents and that is where The Griffin Center falls short. We rely on numerous organizations to help families with job placement assistance, nutrition, and access to health care.
To me, politics of development is all about creating and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships. In order for The Griffin Center to succeed, we depend on each of the groups listed above and they depend on us as well. Frequent meetings take place for the purpose of maintaining these relationships.

The political relationship that I think could be most improved is working with the local school district. Unfortunately, corruption exists at all levels within the school district. I have an idealized version how government can and should work and I am saddened to find that even on this small scale the corruption is so rampant. I think the relationship with the school district could be improved by identifying school board members that desire positive change and linking them with concerned citizens that are not yet apathetic towards the possibility of change within East Saint Louis.

One way the politics in this community affects me personally is through race. I am white working a city that is 99% African American. In all that I do, I remind myself that I am viewing the city through very different lens. I’ve approached the issue of race by treading lightly with openness and a desire to learn while remembering the white privilege that I carry. “Life-long learning as an ally means…Choosing to keep confronting your own privilege. Understanding that the personal is political—meaning that all of our choices either work to support social justice or detract from it. Being conscious takes effort.” (http://www.colorado.edu/communitystudies/resources/ally.html)

Politics should absolutely be more incorporated in our organization. We cannot single-handily change the status quo, but instead must work together to build coalitions towards positive change.

20111003

Make Bike Not Car

As I pull up to Brooklyn’s At the Pepsi Center I find a few hundred more bikes than I was expecting. I thought I would be joining a hundred or so other bikers, but there are at least 500 cruisers ready to ride through the streets of downtown Denver. Bikes are chained to every parking meter, tree, and inanimate object as far as the eye can see. I end up double parking and locking my bike in front of a stranger’s bike because it is the only spot I can find.  I only found out about Denver Cruisers a few nights ago and I am just getting in under the radar as this is the last ride of the season.

Each week has a theme and the theme for tonight’s ride, “Ski Bums & Snow Bunnies”, proves to be an entertaining one. As I am not a skier, my plan was to simply don matching hat, gloves, and mittens. I am not the only person who had this plan. Except for a few exotic costumes, just about everyone is sporting winter clothing in some form. For late September in Colorado, this could have been perfect, but the high was in the 80s today and at 8:00 PM the temperature is still in the high 70s. I quickly lose the hat, but the scarf stays.

With drink in tow, I put on my approachable face and go make some friends. After mingling for an hour or so, I hear Queen’s “Bicycle Race” playing over the loudspeakers. We all start dancing and singing along for the only part we all know. “I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike!” Unknown to me, this is the universal sign that it is go time. One of the organizers announces what everyone already knows, “We ride in five minutes.”

The hardest part is starting. Getting 500+ bikers all moving in the same direction while obeying traffic laws is trying my patience but I finally hit the pavement and get out onto Auraria Parkway. We have police escorts for the first couple intersections but after that we are on our own. The pace is only slightly more than a crawl for the whole ride and I keep having to downshift to stay upright. The four-mile ride that would normally take 20 minutes takes us about an hour but no one seems to notice. Spontaneous dance parties break out at most red lights and a cacophony of “bell choirs” from bike bells and horns make frequent appearances too. Finally the ride concludes at Skylark Lounge where my new-found friends and I continue the drinking, socializing, and dancing. Even though people beg me to stay longer, I finally leave the party at 11:30 PM. (It is a school night after all.)

I was wholeheartedly inspired by the whole evening’s events and cannot wait to do it again. While the purpose of the ride is vague, the fun I had is not. For me, the worst part of the evening was the slow speed of the actual ride but even that proved to be positive with a chance for more mingling. With so many bikes packed into a small space, bumping into other bikers was inevitable. That proved to be fun too as you apologize, shakes hands, and make yet another new friend.

My favorite part of the night was the congenial attitude of everyone I encountered. Each person I met was eager to learn about me and I them in exchange. Sometimes being the new person in sea of regulars is scary but the attendees of the Denver Cruisers made it downright easy. Even though I arrived alone, I had no trouble at all meeting new people.

Interested in jumping in on a bike ride next year? The Denver Cruiser Ride meets Wednesdays at 7:00 PM weekly from mid-May through the end of September. Sign up for an email reminder so you can know when they are starting again for 2012.